A few months ago, I was talking with my summer advisor about the problem of truth in nonfiction, and she told me that it’s usually obvious when writing students make stuff up. It’s never as interesting, she said.
I thought about that today when I read that the Smoking Gun has accused James Frey of greatly exaggerating (some would call it lying) about some of the more vivid details in A Million Little Pieces. It’s a book Sandy thought was awful, and I thought at best mediocre, and perhaps now we know why.
Some writers can lie and get away with it, but most of us end up betraying our writing voices when we prevaricate. Our writing voice gets that oily, shifty feeling that comes when we’ve fibbed to a family member–I didn’t eat that last cupcake!–or tried to reuse a postage stamp. (Though with that, I may simply be betraying my Camp Fire Girl background–not that I’m ashamed of it.)
It’s too bad Frey didn’t just tell it as it was, within the reasonable parameters of artistic recreation. I don’t care if his shirt was red or green, or if he buffs off the edges of someone’s sentences; I do care if a quick overnighter in jail gets spun into a three-month stay, or if he inserts himself into a train accident he wasn’t involved in so “he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim.” That’s fiction–and not very good fiction.
I can see a good memoir beginning with a few hours spent in the pokey. There are plenty of us who would be scared enough to find ourselves in jail, or even threatened with the smallest legal reprimand. For some time I’ve wanted to find a place for a vignette from my days stationed in Germany, when I had one more drink than one should have when driving, slid into a snowbank, was helped out by a policeman (who if he noticed anything said nothing), and, properly terrified, never mixed drinking and driving again. For that matter, Proust ate a cookie and wrote about it; E.B. White gave an enema to a pig; Nabokov devoted pages to a small boy hiding under a couch. What good writing has is voice. What good nonfiction writing has is voice, and a commitment to the truth.